Study Guide

Marlena in Water for Elephants

By Sara Gruen

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Marlena is gutsy and beautiful: what a combination. She seems pretty modern for a woman of the 1930s. She rebelliously ran away from home as a teenager, married August, and joined the circus. And she quickly became one of its star attractions to boot.

Old Crushes Die Hard

Jacob is attracted to Marlena from the first moment he sees her. Perhaps it's because she reminds him of his previous crush, Catherine Hale: "She looks so much like Catherine I catch my breath – the plane of her face, the cut of her hair, the slim thighs I've always imagined were under Catherine's staid skirts. […] When I turn back, the woman is looking at me. Her brow furrows, as though in recognition. […] After a few seconds she steals another glance" (3.115-116).

Yet from the beginning, there are many differences between Marlena and Catherine. Marlena doesn't tease Jacob the way Catherine did. She's responsive to him in a way that Catherine wasn't. And she displays her body for admiration where Catherine forced Jacob to use his imagination. And the main difference? When Jacob looks at Marlena, she looks back. She's interested enough to "steal another glance."

Love Affair

At first it's hard to tell whether Jacob and Marlena are drawn together because they're kindred spirits or because they've fallen in lust (yep, lust) at first sight. We're going to guess it's the former, folks. We mean, it almost seems like they recognize each other from a previous lifetime – at least, that's how Jacob describes it. And the physical attraction they feel at the beginning only grows stronger as they get to know one another and work together. When Marlena and Jacob finally have sex, we learn that they love each other, too. In the end, the love and the lust go hand in hand.

Jacob claims to have a tremendous love affair with Marlena that spanned six decades. At the end of it all, he calls her "a woman of extraordinary understanding" (8.45). Without her, his life is lacking, and he's just waiting for death to come. The light and excitement have gone out of his life. (Downer, we know).

Unlike her relationship with August, Marlena's relationship with Jacob is built on mutual equality. They both stand up for themselves when it matters, and both are completely committed to obeying their own moral codes. Marlena leaves August in order to protect herself. The fact that she gets to be with Jacob is a bonus, not an excuse. She doesn't cling to him or ask him to save her. She sucks it up and saves herself.

Her Side of the Story

But what does Marlena think about the whole thing? We have to take Jacob's word for everything – how in love they are, how passionately they feel, and what a good match they become. What would Marlena say if she could look back on her life and relationship with Jacob? Did she love him as much as he loved her? What else happened to her before they met? How bad was her relationship with August? What would Marlena have been like as a really old lady?

These are questions the book leaves unanswered. Perhaps it's a way of protecting Marlena or keeping her young, but Jacob tells us very little about what she was like when she became old. She seems forever young and beautiful, dressed in her circus costume or looking "gorgeous in red satin" (11.84). She remains "spectacular" (18.11) in a way none of the other characters do, and in a way the circus never truly was. Marlena's beauty makes her a spectacle. Jacob, like so many other characters, is always looking at her.

Her Own Woman

But Marlena is not just an object of the male gaze. She's a woman and more of an adult than many characters in the book. She's not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. When she sees people going hungry, she gives them food or refuses to eat in solidarity. When her horse is unwell, she stays right with him in his stall, even though it's dangerous. When her husband hits her, she says she won't put up with it and firmly leaves him – and no matter how much he begs and pleads, she refuses to take him back.

At the end of the book, when the Nesci Brothers swoop in and try to steal her liberty horses, she will have none of it; she defends them and argues for them until the vultures back off. At that point, she has the chutzpah to call up Ringling Brothers and ask about getting new jobs for herself, Jacob, their horses, and their elephant. Could the same be said of anyone else in the book? We think not.

Own It, Marlena

Marlena also owns her sexuality. It seems like she has the upper hand in her relationship with Jacob: she's the dominant one, the one who makes the decisions. She and Jacob dance around each other for chapter after chapter, wanting to be together even though they know they shouldn't: they think it isn't morally right because she's married to someone else. But when they do submit to their desire, it's Marlena who instigates it. You go, girl.

Jacob says, "When her hands move to my shirt, I open my eyes. She undoes the buttons slowly, methodically. I watch her, knowing I should stop her. But I can't. I am helpless" (20.172). Marlena takes the lead in undressing Jacob, not just giving him permission to be with her but also actively encouraging him to do so. Also, she's lets Jacob say "I love you" first, keeping him in the vulnerable position while she's in control.

In the end, Marlena remains a little bit of a cipher or a mystery. We always see her through Jacob's eyes. And he loved her, so he reports the good and the good alone. What questions do you still have about Marlena? What more would you like to know about her?

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